Thursday, August 25, 2011

Big Ben Strikes Again?

T-minus 18 hours until the moment we have been waiting for. It seems like the only thing people have been talking about for the past month is Jackson Hole. (Can you believe that people actually care about something that is going on in Wyoming?) Everybody is hoping and praying that Mr. Bernanke will announce another round of quantitative easing. I have a few concerns.

1. If Quantitative easing 1 and 2 were so effective why do we need a third round.
2. If we get a third round of quantitative easing are we admitting that we are in/dangerously close to a recession?
3. With CPI (Consumer Price Index) and PPI (Producer Price Index) numbers increasing over the recent months can we afford any additional commodity inflation
4. Does anybody care that we are going to need to bring a a wheelbarrow's worth of one dollar bills to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread? (I guess you could just bring some $100 bills but the wheelbarrow image is more amusing)
5. If countries all over the world are devaluing their currency at the same time doesn't it defeat the purpose of devaluing the currency?

I understand the argument that is made for quantitative easing. By lowering interest rates and putting more money in circulation people will borrow money to fund their business operations and people will be less likely to save their money (at least in a bank) because they are getting a negative real return (return % - inflation %). Banks will also have more money to loan out at a presumably higher spread. My problem is that the federal reserve might be insane (If you believe that insanity is doing the same thing multiple times and expecting a different result). QE1 didn't work so they tried QE2 and look where we are now. Can we reasonably assume that by doing the same thing again we will get a different result?

So what do I recommend? People much smarter than I am are grappling with this question and cannot seem to figure out what to do. I wonder what would happen if we left the economy alone. What if we went back to the days of laissez-faire capitalism and efficient markets. Before the days of "too big to fail" it was "the bigger they are the harder they fall". Instead of saving people from their own stupidity we should let them stew in it. We would have to go through some pain as country, but it would be a one time pain rather than a lingering injury. If banks take on too much risk and become insolvent let them fail. If automobile manufacturers can't turn a profit because they are paying the majority of their revenue to past and present workers as benefits then let them fail as well. (I know this is a union issue but we can save that for another rant...) Just please stop throwing good money after bad trying to save companies from themselves. Who knows if you let the behemoths fail you just might find a more efficient marketplace. Smaller companies will have to compete for the large influx of customers thus driving the prices down. The downside is that investors could lose a whole bunch of money and people will lose their jobs leading us into the depths of a recession. Oh wait, how is that different than were we are right now?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Buy the Rumor, Sell the News

Earlier today the United States Senate voted 76-24 to pass the bill that would raise the debt ceiling and cut the deficit. (I use the term "cut the deficit" loosely) It was considered fairly certain by pretty much everybody that this deal was going to pass because the fallout from it not passing would have been too much for our country to bear. So, why when the bill passed the senate at around 12:40pm did the stock market start inching down instead of flying up?
      The stock market is a fickle beast and at times it can be moved by different things. A market that is in a stable up trend tends to be moved by the underlying fundamentals of the different companies. Investors have a price that they are willing to pay for a certain amount of earnings in a certain investment sector (i.e. financial, tech, utility, etc.), and the investors buy or sell their stock based on information that becomes available (10K, 10Q, monthly sales reports). If the economy starts to go south the markets can become news driven. This brings volatility into the market for two reasons. First, until the news breaks people are left to wonder what is going to happen and how it will impact the economy/investment markets. Second, Even if they predict correctly what the news is going to bring there is no guarantee that the market is going to respond in a way that is commiserate with the news. This brings us to today's news.
      Going into the senate vote the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down about 100 points. It seemed reasonable to believe that we would get at least a small pop on the news that the bill received an up vote in the senate. (this would mean that we would not default on our obligations) As I sat there glued to the t.v (CNBC obviously) I waited for some news. Some call me cynical (I prefer realist) I was expecting the market to start moving in one direction before any news broke about the senate decision because there is always someone who is more connected than the little guy. All of a sudden the vote results flashed up on the screen and the market barely moved a pip. Then it happened. -110 became -112 which became -115 and -119. Our country had been saved and these ungrateful imbeciles were selling stocks. The reason is simple. When there is a binary event (yes/no) traders pile into either side of the decision. As a trader you are not looking for long term theories but short term profits. The traders who went long the market saw that even though they were right the market was not going to give them one stinkin' penny. At that point the decision was easy; sell off the position so you don't tie up the capital. We all know what happens when there are a lot of sellers and not too many buyers.
    So is there a moral to the story? Should we never trade binary events? The answer is no. Never is a very long time and it is just plan wrong in this scenario. Binary events can lead to huge profits as long as you have a strategy for exiting when you enter. Think about a building that has an entrance in one place but an exit in a completely different location. Now lets say you know that there is a 50 percent chance there will be a fire while you are in the building, but if you make it out of the building in one piece (whether there is a fire or not) you will receive a prize. What's the first thing that you would do upon entering the building? (and don't say not enter the building in the first place)
     Now let's extend the analogy a little further. Not only is there a 50% chance of the building catching on fire, but there is a 20% chance that when the building does not catch on fire it will flood. If you don't know where the exits are you pretty much have a death wish. For those who are analogically impaired... If your wrong without a stop loss or are right without a stop loss you are not going to have to worry about a stop loss in the future because you will have nothing to lose. Don't be a fool sell/buy stops are cool (a public service announcement from @SellStraddles)

Full Disclosure: I currently hold SPY puts, QQQ puts, Gold, and assorted small cap biotech companies.

Friday, July 29, 2011

RIMM = PALM or Apple?

When I was a young boy (back 15 years ago give or take) I remember my dad coming home from work with this weird  looking device. He told me that it was a phone that also let him read his email. I thought it was pretty cool and so did he until he started actually getting work email while he was at home. This was the beginning of a long run of business world dominance for Research in Motion. My dad would go on to bring home a blueberry and possibly a strawberry, huckleberry or something else, I'm not quite sure. I just know that when he would take it out I would give him a raspberry. All joking aside (at least for the next 10 seconds) Research in Motion had it made. They were recognized as the only company that had an email system for cell phones that was safe (encrypted properly) for big businesses to use. Completely ignore the wildly popular (at least in the past) retail users for a second and think about how many businesses there are all over the world. Now stop ignoring the retail users and realize that his was a vast empire not just a cell phone manufacturer.
     Before the term smartphone was fashionable people were using Blackberrys to check and send email messages as well as surf their favorite websites. Research in Motion was first to market and enjoyed the benefits that came along with it. Adults were amazed at the capabilities of the devices that they were putting out and kids wanted to be the first to have them. Despite the fact that the service was expensive, and kids really had no use for the device, every phone that was made was sold. Research in Motion was doing great. Too great.
     There are two types of successful companies. Company A is the company that regardless of past success continues to be innovative and forward looking. This group contains Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. These companies will remain successful because even when they are doing well they are still coming out with new and better products/services.
      Company B is the company that fell from grace. For the purpose of this article the best example of one of these companies would be Palm. Palm came out with a completely new way to track every day activities. The Palm Pilot enabled you to keep your calendar + a note pad in your pocket without worrying about tons of clutter. As the years went by Palm would add a few bells and whistles but basically kept the product the same. They also decided that it would be better to focus most of their energy on this one product leaving little time/budget to work on other products. As time went on Palm started to bleed market share to other companies who began to compete both directly and indirectly with their Palm Pilot. By the time management decided it was a good idea to diversify their portfolio of product it was too late. The walls were closing in, the share price was dropping, and there was nothing that could be done. The once multi-billion dollar company was bought for just $1 billion dollars and not even for their main product. Palm had developed an operating system for their smart phones that was considered to be one of the best (if not the best) available at the time. The problem was, in another magnificent blunder, Palm signed an exclusive agreement with Sprint who had considerably less users than AT&T or Verizon. By this point the Palm phones were also competing with the I-Phone and Blackberrys (this was before droid phones). Everyone was watching the stock price drop down to  $15...$12...$10...$8...$5 and finally HP had seen enough.
        Now let's consider Research in Motion. They had an innovative product that both businesses and consumers were buying by the boat load. They put out new phones periodically that had some random bells and whistles, but they never really went out of their way to develop new and different products. They have a great service called BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) that allows people to chat in a way that is more efficient than SMS. This service would be valuable to any cell phone company.  The stock price has gone down by about 65% in the past 6 months and it doesn't show any signs of stopping. This sounds a lot like company B to me. The most dangerous words an investor can say is "this time is different". So let me ask you, is Research in Motion more like Apple or Palm?

Full Disclosure: I do not have any position in Apple, Hewlett Packard, Google, Facebook, or Research in Motion. (Especially Research in Motion!!)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Bubbles aren't just a toy for children

In order to have a market it is necessary to have people. Whenever you have a large group of people it is necessary to understand psychology. If I am sitting at my desk, and I hear from one of my friends that they just saved a ton of money by switching their car insurance to a different carrier what would my first reaction be? I would be on the phone calling that carrier to change my own car insurance without even looking at how much the new carrier is charging (if I was like most people). Retail investors are no different. If someone hears that so-and-sos uncle just made 50% in two weeks by investing in some small bio-tech company then this person is likely to go invest a large amount of money in bio-tech stocks (that he or she likely knows nothing about). This is relatively harmless to the overall market (though very often particularly harmful to that individual investor), the problem is when this process occurs with a popular idea that is somewhat unique. If everyone wants to get a piece of the popular idea, despite an ever growing valuation, eventually there will be a tipping point. The saying goes like this "If you pull up to the gas station and the attendant tells you that you should buy xyz company stock, then you know it's time to sell xyz company stock". This is Scenario 1.

Now lets say that we have one very successful unique idea (similar to scenario 1), but now 10,000 people copy your idea. Everybody wants a piece of the original idea (that is very successful), but unfortunately there are not enough equity shares to go around. Instead of sitting idly by and missing out on that great market (and lots of supposed profit) people start investing in the knock off sites. As the valuation of the original site increases so does the valuation of the knock offs. Eventually there are so many knock off sites that the market is flooded and valuations of all sites (including the original) deflate. This is Scenario 2.

Lastly lets say that you are entering a charity raffle for a brand new 60 inch tv (msrp $2500 lets assume unkown to the members). The raffle tickets are $1 each and you buy 10 figuring you will take a shot. The organization has 1000 members and each member besides you buys 5 tickets. The organization looks at the money generated 3 days before the raffle and is a little disappointed so they try to come up with a way to increase their revenue. A wise board member suggests selling the raffle tickets as buy 1 get 1 free for the last 3 days until the raffle will end and a winner is picked.
     Now for the next raffle lets complicate matters and say that you have 2 choices when you buy your raffle tickets. You can either buy the original tickets for $1 a piece or you could buy coupons for a meal (burger, fries, and soda) at a local burger joint for $4 (a $3 discount). Let's say that there is a finite but large amount of these burger coupons and an finite amount of raffle tickets to be sold. As you could probably guess most of the members of the charity decided they weren't going to be a fool again so they bought the burger joint coupons. They not only bought coupons for themselves they also made the business decision of buying extra tickets so they could sell them to other people. This model seems to work great at first as the market seems to be willing to pay $5.50 for these coupons. The charity is making money, the charity members (reselling) are making money, and the people buying the coupons from the members are making money. One day the restaurant catches wind of what the charity members are doing and decides to run a $5.00 meal promotion until the coupons expire. The secondary market for the coupons goes from $5.50 to $4.00 overnight, and what's worse is that the charity members bought so many coupons they don't know what to do with them. The next day charity members start panicking and sell the coupons for $3.50... $3.00... $2.50.  This is Scenario 3

End Note:  Obviously if you follow investment news on a somewhat regular basis these analogies should be quite clear to you, but for everybody else: Scenario 1 is Facebook, Scenario 2 is Groupon, Scenario 3 is gold. I am not saying that you need to avoid investing in these ideas. I am not even saying that there necessarily will be a bubble bursting but it is inflating at a pretty rapid pace. DIAYOR (do it at your own risk)

For The Record: I am long Gold.

Friday, July 22, 2011

In Case of Default, Buy Treasuries?

In life there are many things that do not make sense. Why does it sometimes rain when there is nothing but blue sky and sun? Why would the U.S. government ban online poker when they are seriously in need of revenue? Why do dogs hate cats? Why would Treasuries go up in price if/when the U.S defaults on its existing debt? (Read this again in case you were busy drinking coffee/reading other articles/playing a game/playing two games while drinking coffee.)
      I read an interesting article today (@CNBC) that proposed that exact, seemingly ludicrous, (not the rapper) idea. Before you close the blog page and write me off as a loony let me explain what amounted to two valid arguments made in the article.
        First, There is an insatiable desire for U.S. treasuries. China, Japan, Europe, Money Market funds, and large corporations all hold U.S. treasuries for security and yield (however minimal it is) because they are considered the same as cash except with a yield. Imagine for a second that I told you that money you put under your mattress earned X% interest annually. Now stop imagining and by treasuries because that is how the global market place views them. When the U.S. hits the debt ceiling (I keep saying when so you obviously know how I feel about the likely hood of compromise occuring between politicians.) it will no longer be able to issue new treasuries. In Economics 101 we all learned that when supply goes down and demand stays the same price goes UP.
       Second, Whenever people get spooked by anything they always run from risky assets and fly to safety. The flight to safety is generally U.S. Treasuries. I'm sure all you amateur Sherlock Holmes' and Cam Jansens' (#childhoodmysteryprotaganist) can see where I am going with this. Where do you run if what you are running from is what you normally run to? The answer is simple (is it?) you run to your broker and buy some Treasuries. I have to admit I find this argument to be a little more suspect than the first, but it does bring up a valid concern. If the whole world is collapsing around you then where do you go for yield? I suppose you can argue that if the whole world is collapsing around you that yield is not as important as a supply of food and weapons, but for the sake of discussion lets say that just the European and U.S. bonds are in default. You aren't going to shove your money in stocks because they are termed "risk assets" and you aren't going to put your money in the bank because you need to earn some return. I'm sure everyone remembers the classic cure for a hangover in college? A beer when you wake up. I guess when people say that Investment Firms are like fraternities they really aren't far from the mark.
      I will not say that I completely agree or disagree with this article but I will say that it is intriguing. How would you allocate your investments in the event of a U.S. debt default?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Interested in an IPO?

Nothing is more exciting, interesting, nor mysterious than the IPO (at least in the investing world). Everyone and their brother wants to get shares of this "next big thing". Is it worth it? Can you get shares during the IPO? If you get shares should you hold on to them for an extended period of time (30 days, 90 days, 2 years)? Why are these IPOs so sought after by new and seasoned investors alike? This seems like a good start, but if anyone has any other questions or comments feel free to comment on the bottom or hit twitter (@SellStraddles).

Why are IPO's so sought after by new and seasoned investors alike? Have you ever been sitting on the couch watching t.v. when a commercial for the newest best thing comes on. For argument's sake lets say that you see a commercial for the IPAD 2 while you are sitting watching t.v. holding your original IPAD. Even though you have an IPAD that has very similar functionality you desire the new IPAD 2 because it is the "next best thing". Hype breeds more hype and there is no bigger hype (in the stock market) than an IPO.

Can you get shares during the IPO? Those of you that have read my other posts (shame on you if you haven't) are aware that I did work in the finance industry for approximately 2 years before taking some time off now to finish my MBA. One of the great injustices that I came across while working at a big investment firm was the way IPOs and secondary offerings were handled. For those of you who are not aware how the process works, you can only get shares at the IPO price if you broker/financial advisor works for a financial institution that has taken part in the underwriting. This means that if you do not use a big brokerage house that does underwriting (Wells Fargo Advisors, Merill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, etc.) you do not have access to the shares during the IPO. Now let's say that you do have a brokerage account at one of these major investment firms you are still not guaranteed to get shares in the IPO that you desire. Investment firms hand out the shares that they are allotted in the IPO to their best brokers/advisors who in turn sell these shares to their best clients.

If you get shares should you hold on to them for an extended period of time? If you get involved in a good situation you should hold onto it as long as possible right? Not exactly. If you look at two companies that had their IPO today they are excellent examples. Skullcandy the maker of headphones, apparel, accessories priced their IPO at $20.00 per shares.  When the market opened skullcandy was trading at $23.11 per share, (a nice profit for those lucky enough to be part of the IPO), but by the end of the day the stock was trading exactly where it started at $20.00 per share. Zillow, a company that helps people estimate the value of their home, also had their IPO at a list price of $20. This company ballooned at the open of trading to $57.00 per share. By the end of trading for today the stock was trading at $35.77. This is a hefty profit for one trading day, but both of the IPOs illustrate the same point. You don't make money using a buy and hold strategy for IPOs. Hype is followed by an inevitable exhaustion of the hype, and when hype leaves it tends to leave all at once taking the share price with it. If you are lucky enough to get involved in an IPO it is generally better to sell the shares the morning of the IPO, let the share price settle down, then buy the shares back at a lower price if you believe that the company has a bright future ahead of it. Never buy shares of an IPO the day it is listed if you are not buying it at the actual list price.

End note: It amazes me that this process of dealing out IPO shares can continue to go on the way it does. Supposedly the market is fair for small and large investors alike; whether you own one share of disney or manage an $8 billion hedge fund you are supposed to have equal access and execution for all investment vehicles. (There is a joke in there somewhere) I guess we can only hope for changes in favor of the individual investor at some point in the future.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Who doesn't love stock brokers?

Long ago and Far away there was a land where people would invest in pieces of paper called stocks. These stocks would give them partial ownership in a large company. The only way to obtain these stocks was by calling your "trusty" stock broker. This stock broker would give you a price to buy whichever stock you desired and you would tell him how many shares. After processing the order you would hang up feeling content that you bought ownership in a company that you believed would increase in value over time. The broker laughed all the way to bank. At this point nobody realized how much the stock broker was marking up the stock because this was also a land that did not have real-time stock quotes. (Gasp! The Horror)
     Fast forward to the 1970's and you will see a shocking new development. People were starting to get curious why they were working their whole lives to save whatever they could for retirement (with meager returns) while their stock broker is eating lobster and fillet on their 40 foot yacht. Thus the discount broker was born. It was a tough road for the discount broker in the beginning. Everybody had their stock broker who they spoke with on the phone or in person. He knew their name and their likes or dislikes (keeping extensive notes doesn't hurt). If you asked your broker about these discount brokers they would try to convince you that they are: scams, frauds, bed wetters, murders, etc. They would tell you that the discount broker doesn't love you like they do and that you are not going to get the same "attention" as you do with the full service broker. At this point the full service brokers were winning but the tide was ever so slightly starting to change.
      Fast Forward to the 1990's. The introduction of "real-time" quotes (most sites have quotes that are 20 minutes delayed) blew a lot of peoples' minds. It also caught a lot of full service brokers with their pants down. People wanted to know why the stock that they see quoted at $25.00 was sold to them for $26.00 by their broker. At this point this discount broker did something incredibly smart. All trades were done at the same flat rate. Come to us and we'll charge you $20.00 a trade. Trade 1 shares or trade 5,000 shares we will charge you one low flat rate. As more and more information about how the market truly worked was made available to the everyday person they decided that they didn't need some overpriced buffoon charging them for what they could do on their own. Like any other competitive market the discount brokerage market had a big pricing war. $20 dollar trades became $18 dollar trades. $18 dollar trades became $15... $12... $9.99...
$5... $3.
      Who doesn't love a bargain? $3 dollars a trade is insanely cheap for executing a trade. If you are an active trader who does 100 trades a month you would be paying $300 dollars vs. $1000+ that you would be paying at a full service broker. Case closed use the discount broker right? Not exactly... Discount brokers have cheap transaction prices for a reason. You get no frills service (I was never one for frills anyway), they don't know my name (that's fine computers are easier to deal with people anyway), the customer service is questionable (STICKING POINT). I need to know that when I have a problem I will be able to get somebody on the phone who is interested in helping me resolve the problem. I don't want to hear that their market maker had a problem so they weren't processing transactions (as I watch my Microsoft calls that I am trying to sell deteriorate as the market starts tanking) . I don't want to hear that the platform is down during pre-market trading (as I am trying to sell my shares in a biotech company that released positive binary news). I need to know that if I am trying to perform a transaction, during the times that are specified by the discount broker, that it will get done properly. (If you want advice on which discount broker NOT to use private message me and I will let you know)
    So discount brokers are terrible and full service brokers are crooks; I guess we just shouldn't trade stocks at all, correct? Incorrect. Not all discount brokers are terrible and there might be a full service broker in some of the far reaches of the world who is not a crook. The point is that you have to make sure you do your research before you trust anybody with your money. If you have the time to do the research necessary to properly allocate your money into diverse investments then by all means use a discount broker. Just PLEASE make sure you do your research so that you don't end up arguing with customer support (who has no interest in helping you) after waiting for an hour and a half on hold. If you do not have the time/desire to do the research necessary to manage your investment portfolio then use a full service broker. Just PLEASE do not take the fees that they give you at face value. There is always wiggle room in those fees, but you are not going to get a discount unless you ask for it. Remember you do not need the broker. You may need A broker but you don't need THAT broker. So when are going in for an initial meeting make sure you go in with that attitude and watch them cut basis points off the fees and dollars of your transaction costs. You can thank me later.